Frye, Pierce, Eco, and “Abduction”


Umberto Eco

Thanks, Nicholas, for your post: this helps to clarify the connection you are making between Lonergan and Frye. I like the detective novel analogy very much: it is perhaps a useful analogy for Frye’s own process of judgment and insight.

Criticism is the act of making ourselves conscious of what is going on unconsciously when we read, and uncovering the imaginative unconscious of literature requires, to recur to another recent thread, what Frye meant by science: a combination of empirical study and deduction–and, I believe even more importantly, what the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce called abduction, a species of logic close to inspired hunch or guessing. I take the liberty of quoting from the wikipedia’s definition of the word:

Abduction is a method of logical inference introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce which comes prior to induction and deduction for which the colloquial name is to have a ‘hunch.’ Abductive reasoning starts when an inquirer considers of a set of seemingly unrelated facts, armed with an intuition that they are somehow connected. The term abduction is commonly presumed to mean the same thing as hypothesis; however, an abduction is actually the process of inference that produces a hypothesis as its end result. It is used in both philosophy and computing.

(Perhaps Clayton Chrusch will have something to say about abduction and computing.)

Abduction is also used by the great detectives of literature, like Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and in another sense Frye was the greatest detective of literature, putting together the pieces of the great literary whodunit by a series of lesser, greater, and ultimately crowning acts of abduction. His great epiphanies, about which much as been said already on the blog (see in particular Bob Denham’s post), are in fact moments of startling abductive inference, in which a myriad of previous insights suddenly cohere into a radiant whole.

I have often wondered why semioticians, and for that matter the cognitivists (with the important exception of our erstwhile blogger Michael Sinding), have ignored Frye’s work. To repeat some observations I published years ago in an article on Frye and semiotics, Frye actually produced what semioticians like Umberto Eco merely postulated as possible: a coherent and detailed description of the encyclopedia of literary conventions and genres. Frye’s conclusions are in no way different from those laid out by Eco when he speaks of Barthes‘ sense of the code in S/Z as

the whole of the encyclopedic competence as the storage of that which is already known and already organized by a culture. It is the encyclopedia, and at the same time allows, gives the possibility of inventing beyond itself, by finding new paths, new combinations within the network.

Frye would also be in complete agreement with Eco’s statement that “A code is not only a rule which closes but also a rule which opens. It not only says ‘you must’ but says also ‘you may’ or ‘it would also be possible to do that.'” Indeed, invention in literature would not be possible without the existence of conventions and rules, which should be seen as enabling, not constricting innovation and originality.

Frye’s conception of an order of words is, indeed, conceived of in the same way as Eco’s global network of interpretants, in which the attempt to establish the meaning of a sign opens up an infinite regression of unlimited semiosis. For Frye, in the same way, the meaning of a sign can only be another sign.

In a discussion of the importance of convention in Anatomy, Frye observes that in the way pastoral images “are deliberately employed in Lycidas, for instance, merely because they are conventional , we can see that the convention of the pastoral makes us assimilate these images to other parts of literary experience.” He then masterfully demonstrates the point:

We think first of the pastoral’s descent from Theocritus, where the pastoral elegy first appears as a literary adaptation of the ritual of the Adonis lament, and through Theocritus to Virgil and the whole pastoral tradition to The Shepheardes Calender and beyond to Lycidas itself. Then we think of the intricate pastoral symbolism of the Bible and the Christian Church, of Abel and the twenty-third Psalm and Christ the Good Shepherd, of the ecclesiastical overtones of ‘pastor’ and ‘flock,’ and of the link between the Classical and Christian traditions in Virgil’s Messianic Eclogue. Then we think of the extensions of the pastoral symbolism into Sidney’s Arcadia, The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s forest comedies, and the like; then of the post-Miltonic development of pastoral elegy in Shelley, Arnold, Whitman, and Dylan Thomas; perhaps too of pastoral conventions in painting and music. In short, we can get a whole liberal education simply by picking up one conventional poem and following its archetypes as they stretch out into the rest of literature. . . .

The direction of this expansion, of course, is reversible: we might start with Dylan Thomas or Whitman, and find ourselves going in the other direction until we bump up against Theocritus. In this regard, Frye’s approach accords in every way with Pierce’s definition of interpretability, as Eco describes it, “according to which every interpretant (either a sign or an expression or a sequence of expressions which translate a previous expression), besides translating the Immediate Object or the content of the sign, also increases our understanding of it. The criterion of interpretability allows us to start from a sign in order to cover, step by step, the entire circle of semiosis.”

Ultimately there is what Pierce calls an “infinite regression” of the interpretant:

Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and, as a representation, it has its interpretant again, Lo, another infinite series.

For Frye, as for Pierce and Eco, “an encyclopedia-like representation assumes the representation of the content takes place only by means of interpretants, in a process of unlimited semiosis.” Ultimately, as Frye sees it, the significance of literature is anchored in social and primary concerns, but the signifying process of literature is unlimited inasmuch as, at the anagogical level of meaning, we have to assume a literary universe “in which everything is potentially identical with everything else.”

Thank you again, Nicholas, for elaborating on the links between Frye and a thinker like Lonergan whose interests appear to be epistemological, focused as they are, if I am understanding you correctly, on the precise mental operations that take place when we make judgments and insights.

This brings to mind earlier questions about the possibility of a science of criticism and the question of how we as readers come to connect images and themes in structuring our reading of a work of literature–or, more poignantly perhaps in the current critical climate, how so many critics now resist or short-circuit those connections in favor of a centrifugal criticism that is in the service of a radical hermeneutics of suspicion. Once again, the centrality of Frye’s literal/descriptive, centripetal/centrifugal polarity is crucial here.

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